GENEVA – For nearly half a century – 47 years – TriCity Family Services has been providing counseling services for thousands of individuals and hundreds of families and couples in Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles.
The nonprofit organization’s counselors, which now number 38 in full- and part-time roles, have guided troubled marriages and troubled teens and helped guide families through crises. Its website lists various services, from anger management to workshops for children whose parents are getting divorced.
Batavia resident Jim Otepka has been at the helm for 25 years. As the agency’s third director, Otepka spoke about the impact the agency has had on local families.
Starting in 1967 as the TriCity Family Project, it truly was a cutting-edge model of how to deliver affordable quality family therapy to the local community, he said.
“It’s a great privilege to be part of this agency because it belongs to the community,” Otekpa said. “We were founded at a very grassroots level by wonderful community volunteers, and we have been supported incredibly by the community through the years.”
One of the agency’s roles is to create community, particularly for families who might feel disconnected, he said.
“We hope we are a link or a way of connecting them to this community,” Otepka said.
One measure of the success in its work is in updates from past clients, he said.
“I often hear of their children, and sometimes even their grandchildren,” Otepka said.
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As Otepka begins his 26th year leading the agency this year, 2014 also marks the 25th year of its Wilderness Challenge program.
The program takes a group of 30 teens – originally those at risk of a difficult transition from middle school to high school – who take a six-day, five-night canoeing and camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 1.4 million acres of forests interconnected lakes and waterways.
The trip was expanded to include students making the transition from ninth grade to 10th grade. Participants leave today. With bus travel, the trip is a total of eight days.
The Wilderness Challenge is modeled after the Outward Bound program, founded in 1962 based on the principles of hands-on learning through outdoor adventure, Otepka said.
“We are way from all the amenities of life,” Otepka said. “No cellphones, no electronic devices. ... Everything we need to live on, we carry with us in our canoes, across ancient portage trails that were probably first used by Native Americans and French fur traders. It’s primitive, and these areas have been preserved as wilderness areas, undeveloped.”
The trip is free to all teens – from food to equipment and clothing, if necessary – because of the community’s generosity in supporting the program, Otepka said.
The challenges are provided by the primitive nature of the route, he said.
“The founder of Outward Bound used to refer to this as ‘forced interdependence,’ ” Otepka said. “They get a list to bring and orientation to show them how to paddle.”
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Wheaton resident Greg Watson, 59, a therapist at TriCity Family Services, has been in charge of the Wilderness Challenge program for all of its quarter century. He and Otekpa have been on all the trips.
“We can’t get enough of it,” Watson said. “It’s where we find peace. We wanted to bring it to the lives of the kids in the community, too.”
Watson and Otepka said they have heard from teens who went on the trip and, as adults, acknowledge how they were changed by it.
“One had been to a college interview for a graduate program she was applying for,” Watson said. “She said they asked her a whole bunch of questions, and they got to this one and they said, ‘Tell us about pivotal experiences in your life,’ and she said ‘I found myself talking for 20 minutes straight about the Wilderness Challenge program.’
“There was so much that happened as a result of coming on an experience like that, in terms of how she got to know herself, personally in a way she couldn’t have known otherwise. We tell kids all the time, that this is a new way to know yourself.”
The wilderness experience is separate from what he calls “screen world.”
“There is a screen in front of them all the time,” Watson said. “When your mind is constantly in front of screens and activity at the incredible rate that culture puts in front of us with technology, you get in sort of a mindless way of living. ... This quiets everything down, including the interior of your mind.”
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Otepka grew up in Lombard and moved to Batavia in 1972, when he got married. He has four adult children, three grandsons and a fourth grandson on the way.
At 65, Otepka said he is not ready to retire – not yet anyway.
“There will be a point down the road where I’ll be handing the reins over to someone else,” Otepka said, “but hoping to continue in another fashion my life’s work, serving families in the community.”